Salt Lake City, UT — Utah’s Public Employee Health Program (PEHP) now flies some patients to San Diego, CA, then buses them to Tijuana, Mexico, where they pick up their prescription meds for much lower sums than they’d have to pay in their native country. This initiative is called the Pharmacy Tourism Program, and it’s thanks to Rep. Norman K. Thurston’s Right to Shop bill, aimed at lowering health care costs for state residents. While it’s still too new to estimate how much money will be saved—the first patients were flown over last December—Thurston predicts that in just six months the program will save approximately $1 million.

Travis Tolley, PEHP Clinical Services Director, explains that “[t]he prescription drugs received in Mexico are the same quality and from the same manufacturer as those sold in the US. The difference is the price you pay.” The degree of this difference may be surprising. “A 90-day supply for the average cost of an eligible drug in the US is over $4,500 per month and is 40-60% less in Mexico. The substantial savings allow us to reward our members for seeking lower-cost options.”

The FDA says it is illegal, generally, to “import drugs into the United States for personal use,” though it also outlines circumstances in which it’s permitted. Regardless, says Southern Methodist University law professor Nathan Cortez, “The general understanding is you can bring up to a 90-day supply of a prescription from overseas, even though it's a technical violation.” Rep. Thurston did his due diligence: “There has never been a single person who has been prosecuted for doing it,” he says. “And it happens every day at the border crossing all over the country.”

While prescription drugs in some countries are of compromised quality, according to a 2017 World Health Organization report, PEHP sends its beneficiaries to just one, reputable hospital in Tijuana. 

Why This Matters

According to the U.S. International Trade Commission, nearly 1 million Californians travel to Mexico every year to buy prescription drugs, and as many as 320,000 other Americans travel abroad every year for health care treatment. With a payer now fueling this growing trend of pharmacy tourism, pharmaceutical companies may soon be forced to take new action to keep their customers buying local.

About the Author:

Ben helps spark innovative healthcare thinking as Associate Director of Innovation. Previously on the editorial staff of Vanity Fair, he brings experience in engaging, rigorous storytelling to the healthcare world. Ben’s goals are to move brands to rethink their roles, own their evolving narratives, and maintain vital and vigorous consumer relationships.